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Thursday, January 19, 2017

“Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling”, by Ross King

304 pages, Walker Books, ISBN-13: 978-0802713957

Perhaps the most famous fresco in the world is the Sistine Chapel Ceiling by Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (or just Michelangelo to you and me), a cornerstone of High Renaissance art, but as any reader of Irving Stone’s 1961 novel The Agony and the Ecstasy (or any viewer of the 1965 film adaptation of the same) will know, Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor above all else and had no desire to paint this ceiling; in fact, as Ross King makes clear in Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, the artist only consented to the command of Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling as a stepping stone to get back to the project he really desired: the sculpting of Julius’s tomb (a tomb that was never even begun, much less completed).

Michelangelo’s artistic achievements were great, wide and varied, but by focusing on this single, famous project that occupied better than three years of his life, King is able to give us a living portrait of this genius: we get to see his petulance and penny-pinching, as well as his fantastic work; we get to see his fights with family, assistants and pope, as well as his tireless work to better his family and amaze his observers; we get to see a man more like us with his cares and worries, as well as his triumphs. It is a story told with a plethora of detail...arguably, too much detail, as every artist and every assistant artist (and many of their relatives and patrons) are given, along with their towns and some of their history, often with little relevance to the story of the ceiling. This is a lot to wade through and is more than is necessary, I think.

There is also a fair amount of repetition, as well, as when we are told (three times at least) that, contrary to the (supposed) popular belief, Michelangelo was not a single man lying on his back, covered in paint working on his masterpiece, but was rather leading a team of assistants of varying competence, standing on his specially designed-and-constructed platform with head tilted back to paint the ceiling. Some details are, however, truly enlightening, as when we learn that, rather than a flawless work created as a single outpouring of genius, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was made by a man who made mistakes and tried to fix them, who learned from (as well as inspired) other artists, and whose work improved as he worked and mastered the skills of fresco.

Arguably, the person who has the most developed and interesting character is not the artist but the man who commissioned him, Pope Julius II, “il papa terribilea”, perhaps the most domineering, vain and aggressive man ever to wear the Papal triple-crown (and that’s saying something), who was perhaps more interested in the power struggles among the Vatican and the Italian city-states (and against France) in the 16th Century than in the finer points of the Catholic faith. We never get a definitive idea of how Michelangelo himself felt about Julius (though in balance it seems rather negative) and we also don’t get much info on Michelangelo’s attitude toward religion, though it is suggested that he was a believer (with little supporting evidence).

Battling against ill health, financial difficulties, domestic problems, inadequate knowledge of the art of fresco, and the pope’s impatience, Michelangelo created figures, depicting the Creation, the Fall, and the Flood, so beautiful that, when they were unveiled in 1512, they stunned his onlookers. Modern anatomy has yet to find names for some of the muscles on his nudes, they are painted in such detail. While he worked, Rome teemed around him, its politics and rivalries with other city-states and with France at fever pitch, often intruding on his work. From Michelangelo’s experiments with the composition of pigment and plaster to his bitter competition with the famed painter Raphael, who was working on the neighboring Papal Apartments, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling presents a magnificent tapestry of day-to-day life on the ingenious Sistine scaffolding and outside in the upheaval of early-16th Century Rome.

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